Kurt Hollander on Mexico City banning all hand-painted street signs



Earlier this year, the mayor of the Cuauhtemoc borough in Mexico City decided to ban the colorful hand-painted signs that adorned thousands of street food stalls and gave the cityscape ‘a distinctive, authentically Mexican look for decades.’ The move left many local residents, street vendors, and rótulistas (the commercial artists who hand-paint the graphics on food stalls) feeling that the city’s cultural identity is forcefully fading. ‘a racist and classist erasure’, writer and photographer Kurt Hollander shares with designboom.

Originally from New York, Dutch has lived in Mexico City for over 20 years and since 2013 divides his time between Mexico City and Cali, Colombia. In the essay below, which was adapted from his upcoming autobiographical book, “From Downtown to El Centro,” Hollander shares a brief history of the rótulos, his perspective on the borough’s recent decision, and his impact on the local community. Read the full text below, along with images of the street signs taken by Mario Pérez, a painter and photographer from South Texas. Over the past two decades, Pérez has documented the work of rótulistas on both sides of the border, particularly the Cuauhtemoc delegación in Mexico City.

all pictures of Mario Pérez


The Cuauhtemóc delegación of Mexico City, the most commercial and touristy area of ​​the city, which includes the centro histórico and the “trendy” colonias infested with Condesa and Roma gringos, has just banned all rótulos. Rótulos, the hand-painted images and text that have given local markets, small shops, and street food stalls a distinctive, authentically Mexican look for decades, can be seen as a continuation of pre-Hispanic glyphs and graphic artists. revolutionaries.

When I moved from New York to Mexico City in 1989 local comics and grim pulp magazines had circulations several times larger than any glossy magazine, beer and cigarettes were still Mexican , local markets sold more food than Walmart, while quesadillas, tortas, esquites, and other street-cooked native delicacies consistently outsold Domino’s pizza and McDonald’s hamburgers. The graphics and images used to advertise local products were still hand painted by commercial artists known as rótulistas.

In my early years in Mexico City, I was surprised that upper- and middle-class chilangos despised popular design (and the products and foods it advertised), in part because it was of an element associated with the visual landscape of popular neighborhoods. For middle- and upper-class Mexicans, popular working-class design, such as posters for lucha libre and tropical music groups, as well as hand-painted signs for small stores and, in particular, food stands street food, was considered naco. The term naco has been defined as a city Indian (the word is probably short for Totonaco, an ancient indigenous nation in central Mexico), but it is also the city Indian who acquired the means to do flaunting her new-found and flashy style. The term naco is also used by the upper classes to describe the bright and flashy commercial expressions of graphics and images in public spaces in Mexico that advertise cheap and glitzy goods.Kurt Hollander on Mexico City's ban on all colorful, hand-painted signs on street stalls

In 2007 I collected and published the book El Super, a collection of Mexican consumer products. Although many of these products were sold in environmentally unfriendly packaging, displayed images that were neither politically nor gender correct, and used ingredients banned in some developed countries, working-class Mexican consumers nevertheless adopted these products as their own. and saw themselves reflected in the images on the labels, often of pre-Hispanic culture. El Super was an attempt to document images that, when put together, form a cultural identity far truer than any official or tourist version, an identity that even then was in danger of extinction.

Over the next decade, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began to decimate Mexico’s food autonomy by dumping thousands of tons of junk food and industrially processed food into markets and restaurants. from the city. Most of the Mexican products featured in my book have either been discontinued or, as is the case with beers and cigarettes, are now owned by multinational corporations, their logos and images redesigned by foreigners with generated imagery and typography by computer. The rótulistas who paint the names of food stalls and design alluring images of the food sold in white tin stalls on the sidewalks, work with the same aesthetic and techniques, but breathe life into them by painting by hand. .

Naco is the Mexican equivalent of the white trash can in the United States and elicits the same response from the educated classes. Naco is the cultural opposite of the bourgeois notion of good taste. Good taste is very important to the local Mexican cultural elite, as their self-image depends on how their lives compare to those of Europeans and other cultured cosmopolitans. Class struggle often pits people with good taste against people who like cheap food that tastes good. Just as many members of the upper classes renounce any blood ties to ancient American cultures, naco is also an aesthetic at which the upper classes, who believe themselves to be inhabitants of a modern, cosmopolitan city, cringe when they are associated with Mexico.Kurt Hollander on Mexico City's ban on all colorful, hand-painted signs on street stalls

In fact, however, on closer inspection, naco turns out to be all that is authentically Mexican. Mexico City, unlike major cities in the United States and Europe, is still a predominantly working-class country with roots in indigenous culture, and globalized food and images have yet to dominate all cultural and social representations of culture. town. Hand-painted images and text on the streets of New York have long been hallmarks of immigrant neighborhoods, created by waves of immigration from Latin America, Europe and Asia, but they started to fade when I grew up there, leaving the city without its own authentic aesthetic.

In the late 80s, Mexican rock band Botellita de Jerez first proclaimed naco es chido (naco is cool), while in the 90s the hottest tee brand in town s called Naco and the city’s national and international artists not only copied the aesthetics of the rótulistas but also hired them to produce their work. These days, however, it seems that these working-class commercial artists have fallen out of favor and their images of local food and culture are viewed only as horror by the forces of modernization (read globalization) from the city. The city government’s whitewashing of the city’s public image, which does nothing to improve health or hygiene, is obviously just a racist, classist erasure of naco imagery for the benefit of tourists. foreigners and upper-class Mexicans, the very people who would never eat street food. in the Cuauhtemóc delegation for fear of Moctezuma’s revenge.


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